National Stadium a white elephant paraded for profit

From ‘Privatisation of Sports Hub not financially feasible’, 19 Dec 2015, Voices, Today

(Quek Soo Beng): The report “High costs ‘a new reality’ with new National Stadium” (Dec 17) about the stadium’s high rental costs is a wake-up call that is not unexpected. As with renting an office space, rental costs vary with capacity. Return on capital and net profitability are realities of any commercial enterprise, as they are in the way the Sports Hub is set up.

It seems the pricing problem has more to do with the public-private arrangement than with the Sports Hub’s management. In a small country, privatisation is often not financially feasible. We’ve seen that with the MRT system, and now the Sports Hub.

…Singapore can justify only one huge sports stadium. Switching it back and forth for concerts and other non-sporting purposes, while necessary to increase usage and revenue, is fuelling operating and management costs and, ultimately, pricing problems.

Any solution that is not financially viable or prudent will not do. Otherwise, under persistent public and government pressure, the demise of the Sports Hub organisation, as it is now modelled, will be only a matter of time.

We cannot have our cake and eat it. The National Stadium is an iconic asset. Let it not become a white elephant to be paraded for profit.

The $1.33 billion Sports Hub costs nearly as much as the Gardens by the Bay, and since the NDP impasse people are already wondering if this behemoth is turning out to be a stupendous waste of money. Already 2 senior management staff have been given the boot over contract disagreements, following in the footsteps of stadia pitch expert Greg Gillin in 2014. Even before a single event was staged, we had problems with its ‘sandy turf’, which threatened to make the stadium not just a white elephant, but probably the most expensive artificial beach in the world.

But maybe it’s not just an issue of rental costs. The original National Stadium had its attendance woes too. In 1958, Financial Secretary T. M Hart, a cricket-loving Scotsman,  slammed the idea of building a ‘white elephant, full every 4 years‘, that Jalan Besar stadium would be good enough at the time. Come the 70’s, despite it being the ‘golden age’ of Singapore soccer, we had to bring in English league teams to draw the crowds, with the SSC boss then continuing to defend the charges that the National Stadium wasn’t making money. More than 10 years ago we saw a dip in confidence filling up seats for tournaments such as the Asian Cup. Dreams of a ‘Malaysia Cup’ resurgence recently died when our Lions were kicked out of the Malaysian Super League. Today, we merely encased that same beast in a shiny dome, gave it a new name, and baptised it with superstars like Jay Chou (whose concert some fans described as a total washout)

The hallmark of any advanced civilisation is that you can afford to build a state-of-the-art Colosseum for the ages. Singapore’s vanity project is no different.  Other mega-structures like the Singapore Flyer, for instance, have already fallen into disuse, but it remains an indispensable fixture of our world-renown skyline. Our billion-dollar dome will remain iconic for decades to come no doubt, but if nothing is done about its management or our general waning interest in sports, it will become, as one ang mo skeptic prophesised half a century ago, ‘full only every 4 years’, an empty shell containing nothing but distant echoes of its once glorious past, making ends meet only when Jay Chou comes to town.

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